The Pledge for Efficiency versus the Attack on Signaling
By Bryan Caplan
Robin Hanson now has an official catechism. A key passage:
I need not accept all clients, but for the clients I do accept I work
to suggest deals that, if accepted, would get them more of what they
want, relative to no deal. I resist temptations to slant my advice to
give hidden benefits to myself or my associates. I accept my client’s
wants as they are, and unless asked do not preach to them on what they
should want. When actions conflict with words, I mostly infer wants
At the same time, though, Robin has waged a long campaign against the inefficiencies of signaling. For example, he argues that we waste a ton of resources on health care because we’re all trying to “show each other that we care.”
I think there’s a major conflict here. Consider: According to Robin’s pledge, under what circumstances is he allowed to advise people to do less signaling? People would actually have to tell him that they want his help to reduce their signaling! But if people are in fact stuck in an inefficient signaling equilibrium, they won’t admit that they’ve got a problem! After all, it sure doesn’t sound caring to say, “Let’s figure out how to to stop wasting resources on health care in order to show how caring we are.” The people who need Robin’s help the most won’t admit that they’ve got a problem.
The only out for Robin, as far as I can tell, is to lean on the sentence, “When actions conflict with words, I mostly infer wants
from actions.” But this escape hatch is precisely the kind of “elastic clause” that Robin fears will lead potential clients to distrust him. In fact, if you ignore words and “infer wants from actions,” you have virtually unlimited wiggle room. The louder people protest, the more you can say, “Methinks you doth protest too much.” I.e., “The more you spend on and praise health care, the more I infer that you want me to help you spend less.”
I think I’ve got Robin cornered here. Anyone want to help him out?